The Gavazan – The Mystery of Tatev Monastery

Armenia is an open-air museum and a country of mysteries. Do we know everything that is to be known about the Armenian sights? Temples, monasteries, fortresses… Tatev Monastery is now the most popular of them.

On the rocky cape surrounded by the picturesque gorge of the Vorotan River sits the 9th-century Tatev Monastery. Tatev Monastery, or Tatevi vank (“Monastery of Tatev” from Armenian), is built on the site of a pagan sanctuary. Ancient architects chose places filled with energy – the so-called “places of power” – to build their temples in.

Tatev is an amazing place: if you visit it once, you will want to go back there and enjoy its sights, breathe in its wonderful air, and recharge yourself with its energy again.

I saw Tatev destroyed and restored, but there still is something to be surprised about and to be discovered there. What have I discovered recently?

I was surprised by the Gavazan (Armenian: staff).

The Gavazan is a swinging column in the courtyard of the Tatev monastery. This octagonal stone pillar – 8 meters high and 2 meters in circumference – built of small hewn stones on an octahedral pedestal has ornamental eaves and a khachkar (cross-stone) at the top.

It is believed that the Gavazan was built in 904 and is dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

What is remarkable about this pillar? The Gavazan is a kind of seismograph: earthquakes have set it in motion, warning the monks and residents of the surrounding villages about the upcoming natural threat.

Besides, the column swayed if the earth trembled under the feet of the approaching enemy troops. And even a mere hand push was enough to rock the Gavazan. In fact, the main feature of the pillar was that it returned to its original position after the oscillations in it stopped.

But all that was in the past.

Arabs, Seljuk Turks, and the hordes of Tamerlane many times attempted to destroy the Gavazan, but it survived. After a powerful earthquake in 1931, all the buildings of the monastery collapsed, including the main temple of St. Poghos-Petros (Holy Apostles Peter and Paul), the church of St. Grigor Lusavorich, the belfry, as well as residential and utility rooms. But the Gavazan continued to stand.

In the mid-50s of the last century, architects disassembled the pillar and found out that it was mounted on a hinge. Then, the Gavazan was reassembled, but it would no longer swing: to prevent it from crumbling, architects sealed it with metal hoops and bolts.

The secret of the Gavazan hasn’t been solved yet, but the executives of the project “Revival of Tatev” are hoping to return the Gavazan to its original “light” shape.

The Gavazan is a vivid example of the knowledge of exact sciences by the ancient architects. The pillar is considered a miracle of engineering – the precisely calculated center of gravity ensured its vertical orientation, and the hinge at the base allowed it to swing and return to its initial position.

In ancient times, people had vast knowledge, but alas, we lost or destroyed it. Unfortunately, in the wars with the pagans and their traditions, Christians burned many libraries with ancient manuscripts, among them the largest library of Armenia in Bagavan (now located in Ağrı Province in Turkey).

Unique manuscripts used to be kept in the recesses of the church of St. John the Baptist before the Russian-Turkish War of 1877−1878. Sadly, this conflict also destroyed the ancient knowledge.

In 1390, a university founded by Hovnan Vorotnetsi (called Ditaran (Armenian: observatory)) commenced its educational program in Tatev Monastery. Under the leadership of Grigor Tatevatsi, the university became a center of spiritual life and science of Syunik Province and entire Armenia.

The university had three departments. The first department taught philosophy, theology, grammar, literature, physics, mathematics, astronomy, history, and architecture; in the second, students studied painting and calligraphy, the art of miniatures, painting, rewriting, and decorating books; the third was a faculty of music.

Tatev has been ruined several times. Its manuscripts have been burned as well. After restoration, it would operate until 1930 when it was shut down by Soviet authorities.

In 2012, independent researcher Vazgen Gevorgyan organized an expedition to Tatev on the night of August 11. There, at 5 o’clock in the morning, they watched the stars of the Orion constellation to form a vertical line.

Why August 11, and what connects Tatev and the Orion constellation?

Since 2492 BC and up until the beginning of the 20th century, the Armenians on this day celebrated the Navasard festival, the Armenian New Year.

Navasard was celebrated in honor of the victory of Hayk – the progenitor of Armenians – over the Babylonian tyrant Bel. In the Armenian tradition, Hayk is associated with the Orion constellation and Bel with the Taurus. Hayk-Orion defeated Bel-Taurus with a three-pointed arrow that symbolizes the 3 stars of Orion’s belt.

On the night of August 11, people headed by Hayk gathered at the foothills of the sacred Armenian Mount Npat near Bagavan (“the place of God”) and waited for the appearance of the star Alpha Orionis (Betelgeuse), which Armenians called “the shoulder of Hayk”. The star appeared in the sky by the morning, commencing Navasard.

In the courtyard of Tatev, the belt of Orion is visible above the Gavazan if one faces the pillar from the west. The Gavazan has been multifunctional: it has been a seismograph and an astronomical device. Besides, it has a gnomon-sundial located on its southern side above the ornament resembling two ropes wrapped around the pillar.

Armenian princes got married, monks were ordained, university graduates passed their exams near the Gavazan. Childless women came to the Gavazan to touch it and ask God to give their husbands the strength to conceive children.

It is surprising that the author of such an unusual structure is unknown. The year “904” is inscribed on the Gavazan: however, had it been built in 904, its architects would have left their names on the pillar as well since it has been a common practice at the time. More likely, 904 was the year when the khachkar was installed at the top of the pillar.

In fact, the Gavazan had probably been built in the pagan times, and Christian Armenians didn’t destroy it like other pagan monuments because it still had a use for them.

The Gavazan has a lot more mysteries to it.

Its octahedral plinth features preserved pedestals of unknown figures. It is believed that those figures depicted the 12 Apostles. The number 12 is associated with the signs of the zodiac. What does this all mean?

It is also thought that the name of Syunik Province where Tatev Monastery is located was derived from the word “syun” (Armenian: pillar). And lastly, the Orion belt has been observed above the Gavazan.

How old is the Gavazan? What other secrets does Tatev keep?

Karin Andreas


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